2021 NHL Conference Finals Predictions

What a wonderful round of playoff hockey. The remaining four teams now play outside of their divisions this postseason. All of them can play physical lock-down defense, score at pivotal times and have top-tier coaching. It was determined after the third games of last round the winners of the central and eastern divisions would play in the eastern conference finals and the winners of the western and northern divisions for the western conference. Without further delay, here are the picks on who advances to the Stanley Cup finals.

#2 Vegas Golden Knights v. #4 Montreal Canadiens

There couldn’t be more polar teams. Vegas remained a top five team all year. A deep roster with fantastic coaching, the Golden Knights are four games away from advancing to the second Stanley Cup finals in franchise history. Montreal’s general manager Marc Bergevin added depth this offseason, taking in whoever could fit better and score more than last year’s roster. Dominic Ducharme became the coach after the firing of Claude Julien and the Canadiens remained good enough to be a top four seed in the offense heavy Scotia north.

Vegas is on a roll. The Golden Knights beat two teams they didn’t have winning records against in dramatic fashion. Former Canadien Max Pacioretty’s had a point in all seven games he’s played. Like last year’s champion Lightning, Vegas boasts three elite layers of defensemen, a Vezina finalist/one of two top Conn Smythe nominees, and at least four lines of forwards and centers that wear teams down. The Golden Knights shut down the best offense in the NHL, shut down the top rookie, and offensively beat down two of the best defenses in the league.

Vegas’ Reilly Smith and the rest of the “Misfit line” (Jonathan Marchessault and William Karlsson) are scoring at the same pace they did in the Golden Knights’ Stanley Cup finals run their first year in the league.

If Montreal has a shot at winning this series, coach Ducharme has to play his team to the style Vegas plays. There’s a strong argument the Canadiens’ top three layers of defensemen are on the same level as Vegas’, and Carey Price looked as good if not better than Marc-Andre Fleury during Montreal’s seven game winning streak. There are four solid forward and center lines that contribute to scoring, dominance in the offensive zone and penalty killing.

Pivotal Matchup: Peter DeBoer’s line changes v. Dominic Ducharme’s easing younger players into the series

Both teams have the right players. It’s the coaching that determines how they’ll be used and who has the upper-hand consistently. DeBoer faces questions on elevating his second line since they’ve scored and played better than the first or having the fourth line be moved higher because of the physical style of play used. The same goes for Ducharme on considering when to play his top line without breaking them up and how often should rookies such as Cole Caufield play this series. Even if one coach makes the right adjustment, the other can find an answer the following period.

Coach Dominic Ducharme has to use every tactic possible to steal a series against the Golden Knights since his team is facing an uphill battle on offense.

Verdict: Both teams play exceptional on defense. The biggest mismatch is the scoring ability of Vegas’ forwards and centers compared to Montreal’s. Brendan Gallagher for example is a solid two-way forward. He’s a pest at the front of the net and blocks shots without being told to. However he isn’t on the same level Golden Knight’s forward Mark Stone is. Vegas’ players are in their prime, are well-rounded and can shift to any style of play, finding more ways to exploit the Canadiens.

Prediction: Vegas wins series 4-0

#3 Tampa Bay Lightning v. #4 New York Islanders

Hockey fans and analysts are in for part two of a special series many watched in last year’s playoff bubble. The reigning champs and the best underdogs in the last three years go at it again in what is a coaching contest of the ages. Barry Trotz’s press conferences alone drew the ire of the Boston Bruins and un-did Bruce Cassidy’s temper after game four. Tampa’s Jon Cooper is leagues ahead of Cassidy, creatively keeping his players ahead but wary the Lightning would again face the Islanders’ suffocating defense.

New York doesn’t have captain Anders Lee, but Lou Amoriello’s trades for Travis Zajac and Kyle Palmieri paid off last round. Both scored and lead the offense to three commanding wins after the Bruins took a 2-1 series advantage. Mathew Barzal scored at critical times and the best fourth line in hockey scored in two of the last three games. Coach Trotz emphasizes defense but his team can play physical and commanding offense when they need to score or close a game.

Mathew Barzal punked Boston despite their defensemen hitting him the last four games. It’ll take Tampa’s best to shut him down all series.

Coach Cooper and the Lightning have to be relieved they’re out of the Central division, downing two of the league’s best teams in six games or less. Tampa’s fourth and fifth lines propelled them past Carolina, a sign that every forward and center should be defended carefully. If the postseason ended, Nikita Kucherov would be the other of two Conn Smythe finalists. Forget the number of points tallied, he’s the reason Tampa has the best power-play in the playoffs and why even the best goalies are on edge when the puck is on his stick.

Pivotal matchup: the whole Islanders offense v. the Lightning defense

Unlike the Boston Bruins, there’s no shortage of elite defenders for Tampa. General manager Julien BriseBois knew his team needed an additional defenseman for depth in the playoffs and traded for David Savard. Norris trophy (best defenseman award) candidate Victor Hedman’s rested more with two more lines holding leads, a recipe for more playoff runs. Jan Rutta, Ryan McDonagh, Erik Cernak, Mikhail Sergachev, Luke Schenn and Cal Foote round out a defensive unit that can counter most offenses.

The Islanders though, aren’t like most offenses. The importance of Mathew Barzal showing up in the most important games puts more pressure for Tampa to finish a series early. Casey Cizikas, Matt Martin and Cal Clutterbuck cause havoc by hitting teams’ first two lines to rattle them early. This eases the Islander stars to play their best offense. Jordan Eberle, Josh Bailey, Anthony Beauvillier, Jean-Gabriel Pageau, Brock Nelson, and the former Devils Zajac and Palmieri put pressure on defenses to play perfect. Vezina nominated goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy needs to play his best hockey of the playoffs if Tampa wants a chance at repeat championships.

The acquisition of David Savard comes into play against an Islanders team that has the top scoring offense in the NHL playoffs.

Verdict: Defensemen depth determines who wins. New York doesn’t have three stout lines the way Tampa does. Noah Dobson, Andy Greene and Braydon Coburn may crater to Tampa’s third line of Yanni Gourde, Barclay Goodrow and Blake Coleman the longer the series goes. Hockey lovers should enjoy a repeat bid for one of the best rosters assembled in the 21st century and bid farewell to New York’s Nassau Colosseum.

Prediction: Tampa Bay wins series 4-1

Stanley Cup second round record: 1-3

2021 NBA Western Conference Second Round Playoff Picks

What an exciting first round of basketball! Each team that advanced showed they were the better team in every aspect. Only the Utah Jazz finished their series in five games or less. The Los Angeles Clippers were the only team to extend a series to seven games and win one home game. Two teams in the remaining series will advance to play in the conference finals, so it’s time to decide which two have the best chance of advancing.

#1 Utah Jazz v. #4 Los Angeles Clippers

Two heavy-weights in the west square off in a series that defines which team moves forward after the season. If the Clippers lose, does star Kawhi Leonard opt out of his contract or does he help recruit more talent to a roster needing some depth at guard? Will the Jazz and coach Quinn Snyder adapt and take the next step towards a championship? These are the questions that mediums will ask and try to answer on their own when the series loser is determined.

Utah made quick work of a feisty and inexperienced Memphis team, a better outcome than if they played Golden State. Utah’s top five ranked defense frustrated Ja Morant and company, but it’s doubtful they can stop proven veterans Rajon Rondo and Kawhi Leonard in a close game. The guard matchup will be fun with Donovan Mitchell and Mike Conley taking on Paul George and Reggie Jackson.

Donovan Mitchell is the better guard v. Paul George and has less pressure to reach the conference finals than George.

Los Angeles’ forwards could determine the series with Marcus Morris, Nick Batum and Kawhi Leonard overpowering Joe Ingles and Bojan Bogdanovic. Both Ingles and Bogdanovic are great defensively, but trying to score against the Clippers’ stars will be difficult since their three play like a complete unit.

Verdict: This won’t be a short series, and that plays to coach Ty Lue’s favor since he’s 4-0 in game seven’s. Barring serious injuries, Los Angeles should advance to their first conference finals game in franchise history.

Prediction: Los Angeles wins series 4-2

#2 Phoenix Suns v. #3 Denver Nuggets

Both teams knocked out first round opponents who had a shot at the championship. Phoenix dispatched last year’s champion Los Angeles Lakers, due to injuries Anthony Davis suffered. Denver took advantage of a Portland Trailblazers team that scored only 14 points in their last game. Whoever wins this series is a favorite to represent the western conference in the finals because of coaching and quality veteran players who lead both on and off the court.

Denver’s Nikola Jokic and Michael Porter Jr. had themselves a great end to their first round series, averaging 63 points their last two games. Coach Michael Malone used every asset as his disposal since the season-ending injury to Jamal Murray’s left knee. Forwards Aaron Gordon, JaMychal Green and guards Monte Morris and Austin Rivers are additional help on the three point line and initiating a passing game where Jokic can take control inside the paint.

Jae Crowder is Phoenix’s X-factor if they have a chance of reaching the conference finals. He has to play as good if not better than Denver’s Aaron Gordon.

Suns coach Monty Williams re-shaped Phoenix’s roster and poise in big moments. Veteran Chris Paul came in not just to implement Williams’ style, but for leadership and a starting role. The Suns have one of the best guard duos in the west, with Paul running point and Devin Booker as their top shooter. Forwards Mikal Bridges and Torrey Craig have to step up against Denver’s forward tandem of Green and Porter Jr. The most pressure is on Jae Crowder to nullify Aaron Gordon. If Crowder, an eight year veteran, can smother Gordon most of the series, Phoenix can make the conference finals.

Verdict: The Nuggets are deemed a favorite because of Jokic’s MVP-caliber season. Denver’s problem is they don’t have the right guards to stop either Devin Booker or Chris Paul. Facundo Campazzo doesn’t stand a chance against one of the best point-guards to play professional basketball, and Booker is leagues ahead of Austin Rivers and Monte Morris. Phoenix’s forwards stand a better chance since that’s the help Jokic will need. Williams is the better coach and has a balanced roster that buys in.

Prediction: Phoenix wins series 4-3

2021 NBA Eastern Conference Second Round Playoff Picks

What a fun and dominant first round of basketball!! All four teams that advanced made quick work of who they played, intent on wanting rest and how to approach their opponent in the second round. Only two teams will advance to play in the conference finals, so it’s time to decide which two have the best chance of meeting in the eastern finals.

#2 Brooklyn Nets v. #3 Milwaukee Bucks

Reigning MVP of the past two years Giannis Antetokounmpo (white) spearheads a Bucks offense against a Nets defense that’s improved the past two months.

Two of the NBA’s best teams face off in must-see television. The trios of Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday versus Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving headline the best series in the second round in either conference. There’s so much talent, a number of stars could break through and make this a series to remember.

Brooklyn took care of business despite headlines about fans in Boston’s TD Garden. Their team chemistry is much better than most fans and analysts expected even two months before playoffs. They pass well and are playing their best team defense of the year. If their trio of Durant, Harden and Irving can average 103 points a game against the Bucks, they’ll be favorites for the eastern finals.

Milwaukee was the first team to finish the first round, and gained both rest and more film on how to attack Brooklyn’s defense. Both Holiday and center Brook Lopez are solid defenders who can keep James Harden and Blake Griffin quiet. Holiday and Lopez were a big reason Miami’s offense struggled all four games.

For Milwaukee to win the series, they can’t let elite scorers such as James Harden (black jersey) easily score.

Series X-Factor: Depth will be critical, and it favors the Bucks. Nick Claxton and Jeff Green are good players that help the Nets score off the bench. However the Bucks’ depth of Bobby Portis, P.J. Tucker, and Jeff Teague bring enough scoring and defensive presence to tip the scales.

Prediction: Milwaukee wins series 4-2

#1 Philadelphia 76ers v. #5 Atlanta Hawks

Both teams impressed the first round. Philadelphia took Washington seriously, dropping one game because of star Joel Embiid’s early injury in game five. Atlanta took advantage of every defensive mistake the New York Knicks had and played shut-down defense in every game. The winner of this series will be an underdog in the eastern conference finals, but should give their opponent fits.

Philadelphia’s Seth Curry shoots over Bradley Beal in last round’s series against the Wizards. With Embiid’s health questionable, the main scorers on offense come down to Curry and Tobias Harris.

This series comes down to the seriousness of Embiid’s right knee injury. If his knee requires more time to heal or some kind of surgery, the 76ers may lose to an Atlanta team playing their best basketball of the season. If Embiid is around 75% healthy, this could be a seven game series. Philadelphia needs strong offensive performances from Seth Curry, Tobias Harris and Ben Simmons if Embiid is out more than two games.

Atlanta’s star Trae Young will face double-teams against this defense. Center Clint Capela and forwards John Collins and De’Andre Hunter have to contribute more scoring. Lou Williams and Danilo Gallinari provide offense off the bench and help the Hawks keep games close, but their forwards and centers are critical for wins.

Prediction: Philadelphia wins series 4-2

Eastern conference first round series record: 2-2

NHL 2021 Second Round Playoff Picks Part Two

Those were great first-round playoff series we watched the past few weeks. The best teams showed depth, determination and who can win in overtime. This will be the last of the division play-ins before the conference finals. Without further delay, it’s time to decide which team in Canada has the best chance of advancing.

North Division

#3 Winnipeg Jets v. #4 Montreal Canadiens

The last two teams in Canada play for a trip to the conference finals. Whoever wins, it’ll affect who faces off in the east or west on the U.S. side.

Coach Paul Maurice may have the last laugh with his coaching. The Jets are playing their best at the right time.

Winnipeg doesn’t just have Pierre-Luc Dubois and Nikolaj Ehlers back since their last series, they’re more rested and have a better idea on how to attack a Montreal defense that wasn’t tested their last three games. Centers Mark Scheifele, Paul Stastny and Adam Lowry create plays, either scoring in critical situations or extending plays late in periods. Connor Hellebuyck’s played like the Vezina winning goaltender he was last year, with added help from defensemen by Dylan DeMelo and Neil Pionk.

Montreal’s goaltender Carey Price is this postseason’s most valuable player. He rallied the Canadiens back from a 3-1 deficit against a layered Toronto Maple Leafs squad and advanced to the second round. Six goals were scored in the last three games against Price. On offense, Jesperi Kotkaniemi, Corey Perry, Joel Armia and Tyler Toffoli are the playmakers who stepped up and scored when Montreal needed it most. Toffoli, Kotkaniemi and Nick Suzuki have to keep their three game performances going against a Jet defense that’s shut down stellar division offenses.

This series has a gap in coaching. Jets coach Paul Maurice fleeced fans and analysts, shutting down two former Art Ross trophy winners with a stout and bright-minded fourth line. The tactic accomplished a first round sweep. Montreal’s Dominic Ducharme has done a great job pushing the Canadiens to a new level, but Maurice and veterans Blake Wheeler, Scheifele, Stastny, Lowry and Ehlers have been to a conference finals before. They’re in a better position to battle a western opponent such as Vegas or Colorado than Montreal is against a team such as Tampa Bay or Boston.

Prediction: Winnipeg wins series 4-1

North Division first round picks: 1-1

NHL 2021 Second Round Playoff Picks Part One

Those were great first-round playoff series we watched the past few weeks. The best teams showed depth, determination and who can win in overtime. This will be the last of the division play-ins before the conference finals. Without further delay, it’s time to decide which three teams in the U.S. have the best chance of advancing.

West Division

#1 Colorado Avalanche v. #2 Vegas Golden Knights

The first of two great series in the second round. Like the remaining two teams in the central division, the winner is a favorite to go to the finals and win the championship. Colorado’s in the best health possible compared to the last four years they’ve advanced to the second round, while Vegas’ Max Pacioretty is back at the best possible time.

Colorado shipped Nikita Zadorov to Chicago, acquiring Devon Toews from the New York Islanders in return. Toews was wonderful on defense in last year’s playoffs, and is a key player in shutting down the Vegas offense.

The Avalanche were gifted additional rest after sweeping the St. Louis Blues. Goaltender Philipp Grubauer needed it more than anyone since he’s started most of their games. Nathan MacKinnon and captain Gabriel Landeskog combined for eight goals and nine assists, destroying any chance St. Louis had of winning one game. After a week off, Colorado can jump on Vegas early and pick up where they left off.

The Minnesota Wild wouldn’t have fared well against the Avalanche if they advanced. Vegas is the right opponent this round. The Golden Knights defense and scoring is enough to counter and test how ready MacKinnon, Grubauer and Landeskog are for the big stage. Robin Lehner should have a few starts in this series, a move Peter DeBoer should’ve made last round against the Wild. The Avalanche are one of two teams Vegas didn’t have a winning record against this regular season.

Key matchup: Cale Makar, Devon Toews, Samuel Girard and Ryan Graves v. Mark Stone, Max Pacioretty, William Karlsson and Jonathan Marchessault

The league’s third best offense v. the league’s third best defense will determine who advances. While Vegas has the league’s best defense and Colorado the best offense, it’s these two that determines who advances. Makar may leave after the season because of restricted free agency, and both Girard and Graves haven’t faced many top offenses in playoff rounds in their five years in the league (combined). On the flip side, Toews played some of his best defense with Barry Trotz in New York and helped the Islanders reach the conference finals last year.

Pacioretty’s return in time before game one is the boost Vegas needs and is a main talking point. His performance in game seven against the Wild led the Knights to ringing up six against a disciplined defense. Mark Stone’s passion combined with original franchise playmakers Karlsson and Marchessault is a lot to handle. It won’t be a surprise if Vegas wins at least three games.

Jonathan Marchessault is one of the remaining Golden Knights from the franchise’s inception. Important in playoff games, Marchessault’s intelligence gives his second line an advantage most defenses can’t prepare for.

Verdict: Colorado’s week off and Vegas struggling to close out a Minnesota team that took positive steps forward plays to the Avalanche’s favor. This is the healthiest coach Jared Bednar’s team has been in years in the second round. A young team this deep can swarm a defense at will, and Vegas has to be ready early.

Prediction: Colorado wins series 4-3

Eastern Division

#3 Boston Bruins v. #4 New York Islanders

Boston and New York had a two sided series in the regular season. The Islanders were the better team in the first half, shutting down the Bruins’ dominant first line in almost every game. Boston looked much better in the second half once they acquired Taylor Hall and Curtis Lazar, winning three of their final four games against New York.

Jake DeBrusk (74) and Taylor Hall (71) rejuvenated Boston’s offense in the first round against Washington. Can they keep it up against one of the best defenses in the NHL?

Better play from Boston’s second line led the third line to increase productivity. Nick Ritchie is the top scorer, but Jake DeBrusk is playing with more confidence, something the Bruins wanted heading into the playoffs. Charlie Coyle is a dependable center with playoff experience. It’s important this line has as much production as the second line. It puts more pressure on the Islanders to play better defense against more than one line.

If New York has any chance against a surging Bruins team, they’ll need to see which goaltender plays best. Coach Barry Trotz switched to Ilya Sorokin against the Penguins when he won two games to even that series. We’ll see if Sorokin or Semyon Varlamov plays better the first two games. The Islanders have better depth and it’s possible Trotz knows how to attack Boston since he’s seen their updated roster four times before the playoffs.

Live on Ice: Defensemen Ryan Pulock (6) and Adam Pelech (3) neutralize almost every star forward and center they’ve played against this year.

Boston dispatched Washington in multiple overtime games, gaining additional rest. They could start slow and New York could take advantage, hitting them early and often. Both defenses are in the NHL’s top five. The Islander offense has to score more than three goals a night against a defense that’s much better than the one they faced last round.

Prediction: Boston wins series 4-2

Central Division

#1 Carolina Hurricanes v. #3 Tampa Bay Lightning

This series defines great hockey; outstanding offense, phenomenal defense and great coaching. Somehow we knew at the beginning of the season these two teams would have a showdown to determine who would advance to the conference finals. Both Carolina and Tampa have offensive depth, great goaltending and penalty-killing defenses. The winner has a high chance of not just reaching the championship, but winning it all.

The Hurricanes may have one more shot at not just reaching the championship, but winning it. Andrei Svechnikov and Warren Foegele are restricted free agents the Seattle Kraken will target this offseason, and coach Rod Brind’Amour needs a contract extension. They will lose someone critical to their championship run in the future. One would think this motivates Carolina to push past Tampa Bay.

Jon Cooper is the longest tenured coach in the NHL with one team for good reasons. His creativity keeps Tampa competitive and dangerous.

The Lightning players get a lot of the credit for their wins, chemistry and individual play, but coach Jon Cooper deserves more credit. Tampa’s collapse in a game three against the rival Panthers angered Cooper to the point where he pushed the team to play better collectively the last two of three games. Cooper’s creativity on the power-play shattered Florida’s defense and confused the goaltenders regarding shots and passes.

Key matchup: Jaccob Slavin, Brady Skjei, Dougie Hamilton and Brett Pesce v. Nikita Kucherov, Brayden Point, Steven Stamkos and Ondrej Palat

Tampa’s defense was the focus of last round since Florida had one of, if not the best offense in the NHL. Tampa’s defense has a similar challenge, but it’s Carolina’s defense that will be tested more. In his first game against the Hurricanes this season, Nikita Kucherov will spearhead the Lightning offense, having Point, Stamkos and Palat with him on the power-play.

Carolina’s defensive quartet bottled up Nashville’s offensive playmakers on home ice their first two games. This series depends on how Slavin, Hamilton, Skjei and Pesce contain and shut down Tampa’s top four playmakers.

Assisting on Jordan Staal’s game five winning goal, Brett Pesce is a dual threat for the Hurricanes, especially on defense.

Verdict: Surprisingly, Tampa was the first team to finish their series last round. Carolina not sweeping a scrappy Predator team could be their undoing since the Lightning had more time off.

Prediction: Tampa Bay wins series 4-1

First round U.S. series records: 4-2

2021 NBA Eastern Conference Playoff Picks

The NBA’s eastern conference made progress compared to years past. The Toronto Raptors took a plunge as most expected, but the Brooklyn Nets are the team everyone’s interested in. Philadelphia took the next step to being a complete team with coach Doc Rivers, and Atlanta looks to be a contender for years to come.

The playoffs are now upon us and that means predictions for the first round. Time to break down which teams have the best chance of advancing to the second round.

#4 New York Knicks v. #5 Atlanta Hawks

Both teams deserve praise for reaching the playoffs where many analysts and fans didn’t have either getting in. One team will be blessed to make it to the next round where they’ll have a shot at the conference finals.

The hiring of Tom Thibodeau was the best move the Knicks made since superstar Carmelo Anthony left. The acquisitions of Julius Randle, Derrick Rose and Nerlens Noel made New York a dangerous team on defense. Randle is the team’s star and likely wins the league’s Comeback Player of the Year award.

Nate McMillan was hired in the second half of the season for the Atlanta Hawks after the team blew their 17th lead of the season. Rajon Rondo was traded to the Los Angeles Clippers for Lou Williams, and Atlanta rose in the standings. The incoming coaching staff and the upgraded roster made the most of these quick changes.

Atlanta’s acquisition of Lou Williams solidified their bench and scoring depth. It’s why they shot up to the fifth seed.

The only downside is both Nate McMillan and the Hawks still need better experience in the playoffs, and the Knicks have more answers to shut down Atlanta than the other way around.

Prediction: New York wins series 4-1

#3 Milwaukee Bucks v. #6 Miami Heat

Probably not the series Milwaukee wanted in the first round. Miami was built for the playoffs while the Bucks succeed best in the regular season. Coach Mike Budenholzer has to learn from his mistakes the last few years.

Jimmy Butler counters Giannis Antetokounmpo better than any player in the east. It comes down to who’s supporting cast can put better numbers up. Miami added Trevor Ariza while Milwaukee traded for Jrue Holiday and signed Bobby Portis. The rosters are as good as it gets and they’re close to even.

Last year Jimmy Butler and the Heat stifled Giannis and the Bucks. Can the trade for Jrue Holiday pay off in the first round?

Coaching determines who advances. Budenholzer is known for not adapting in the playoffs. The offense goes through Giannis, but that doesn’t mean he should drive down the middle most possessions. Heat coach Erik Spoelstra knows how to get the most out of his roster, even if long-range shooting didn’t show up in the latter half of the season.

Upset Prediction for the East: Miami wins series 4-1

#2 Brooklyn Nets v. #7 Boston Celtics

A lopsided series would be an understatement. Boston’s Jaylen Brown and Robert Williams ensure they won’t advance past the first round. Kemba Walker and Jayson Tatum will take the Celtics as far as they can.

Brooklyn needs a full return for Kyrie Irving and James Harden. They haven’t played much with superstar Kevin Durant or mid-season pickup Blake Griffin, and they need chemistry in a series to make a push to the finals.

Prediction: Brooklyn wins series 4-0

#1 Philadelphia 76ers v. #8 Washington Wizards

Washington had less than a one percent chance of making the playoffs in mid-April. They made the eighth seed and have a better shot of taking out the 76ers than most analysts think. Russell Westbrook struggles in the playoffs, but he’s not the only star player. Bradley Beal makes everyone better, and the tandem combined with Scott Brooks’ better coaching is why they stand a chance.

Philadelphia’s “Crowned Prince of Chaos” had one of the best defensive seasons a second year player could have, shutting down more opponents than Rudy Gobert or teammate Ben Simmons.

Defending Joel Embiid in a seven game series is why Philadelphia is favored to win. Despite flaws in Doc Rivers’ playoff coaching, Tobias Harris and Matisse Thybulle are a solid supporting cast to help lock down premier players or help out on offense.

Prediction: Philadelphia wins series 4-1

Regular Season playoff picks: 6-2

2021 NHL Western Division Playoff Predictions

The first three playoff spots were clinched by teams in the western division. Surprisingly, one of those was the Minnesota Wild, a team that exceeded everyone’s expectations and gave two of the other three playoff teams in their division a scare.

This is a unique season where the top four teams of each division play each other until one team remains. The remaining four teams play each other in the conference finals. Without further delay, here’s the playoff predictions for the 2021 western division.

#2 Vegas Golden Knights v. #3 Minnesota Wild

A lot of fans and analysts probably had a mix of either Vegas, St. Louis or Colorado for the two/three spot. That’s fair considering those were the three dominant names before the season began. The Wild are the third spot because Vegas and Colorado are further ahead chemistry-wise. This series will prove a problem for Vegas because of their struggles with Minnesota the past two months.

Rookie star Kirill Kaprizov has been a thorn in the Golden Knights’ side, helping the Wild steal at least two wins from them.

Both teams have a great 1A/1B goalie tandem. Minnesota brought in both Cam Talbot and Kaapo Kahkonen this offseason, while Vegas’ tandem of Marc-Andre Fleury and Robin Lehner have gotten better with continued work and games played.

The tilt goes to the Wild, who have better defensemen capable of locking down Vegas’ star centers and forwards. It’s how the Wild beat Vegas the past couple of months. Ryan Suter, Jared Spurgeon, Jonas Brodin, Kevin Fiala and Matt Dumba locked down Mark Stone, Max Pacioretty, William Karlsson, Alex Tuch and Jonathan Marchessault. It gave the Knights’ offense fits while Shea Theodore, Alex Pietrangelo and Alec Martinez struggled to contain Kirill Kaprizov, Marcus Foligno and Joel Erikson Ek.

Upset Prediction of the First Round: Minnesota wins series 4-2

#1 Colorado Avalanche v. #4 St. Louis Blues

Avalanche coach Jared Bednar’s kept his loaded roster healthy while making sure they’ve taken the needed steps forward to improve.

The Avalanche and Blues hope to start their series healthy. Both Bednar and Craig Berube have dealt with adversity during the season with their clubs. The former has to keep the roster healthy unlike the past few years in the playoffs, and push them to championship aspirations while the latter has seen team productivity dip after being the top team in the west last year.

The Avalanche weren’t going to play Vegas in the first round, but the Blues are the harder of the two between them and Minnesota. Colorado steam-rolled over the Wild in most of their games. St. Louis is grittier, harder to put away, and have their star players back at the right time. That’s the formula to having a successful playoff run.

Blues goalie Jordan Binnington didn’t play stellar most of the season, a big reason the they had to battle most of the season to get the fourth seed. Part of the dip in play is because captain Alex Petrangelo was signed by Vegas in the offseason, but it’s worth mentioning because the Avalanche will take full advantage of any defensive mistakes St. Louis has.

Blues goaltender Jordan Binnington got a six year extension in March, but he needs to play better against quality opponents, namely the two big names in the west standings.

This series is full of what-ifs, notably on the Avalanche’s side if they can’t stay healthy. Coach Bednar’s decision to rest Philipp Grubauer and Nathan MacKinnon before the playoffs helped.

Prediction: Colorado win series 4-1

Regular Season Playoff Picks: 3-1

2021 NHL Northern Division Playoff Predictions

The northern division was predictable after February. The top four teams stayed in their spots with little turnover. The question was where Toronto, Edmonton, Winnipeg and Montreal aligned.

This is a unique season where the top four teams of each division play each other until one team remains. The remaining four teams play each other in the conference finals. Without further delay, here’s the playoff predictions for the 2021 northern division.

#1 Toronto Maple Leafs v. #4 Montreal Canadiens

The oldest rivalry in the NHL clashes in the playoffs for the first time in 42 years. Toronto and Montreal locked up their spots even before clinching. Their different styles have made for great games and ratings.

Alexander Romanov is refreshing for Montreal’s defensive depth and physical play, but he needs to score more against a team like Toronto for his team to advance in the playoffs.

The losses of Brendan Gallagher and Jonathan Drouin to long-term injured reserve hurts the Canadiens. Their physical play kept games close even if Toronto won. Montreal needs Phillip Danault, Alexander Romanov and Erik Gustafsson to step their physicality and offense up a notch in order to stay even against a layered and overwhelming Toronto offense.

The Leafs finally have the players and talent to play physical and pushback against quality playoff teams. Their big question is who starts in net when the series starts. Jack Campbell should have the nod until he falters.

Prediction: Toronto wins series 4-1

#2 Edmonton Oilers v. #3 Winnipeg Jets

A flexible shot defender even at 40, Mike Smith’s return ten games into Edmonton’s season is the big reason why the Oilers are the second seed.

What a series this is! The Oilers and Jets have played great games against each other this season, with Edmonton winning most of them. Luckily for Winnipeg, playoffs are a different kind of competition.

Playoff series go more than one week, and they expose who lacks roster depth and who’s built for championship runs. Edmonton has a superstar duo of Leon Draisaitl and Connor McDavid. There’s not much depth to push the offense when neither are on the ice, and it could be a problem past two games in the series.

The Jets are opposite. Blake Wheeler, Adam Lowry and Nikolaj Ehlers return from injury to provide much needed scoring depth at center and forward. The Jets need goalie Connor Hellebuyck to steal a win those first two games in order to expose the lack of depth the Oilers have later on in the series.

The return of Adam Lowry is a boost for Winnipeg’s scoring depth and game planning, especially against an Oiler’s team that’s been inept in the playoffs.

Deciding Factor: Mike Smith is nearly 40 years old and runs hot-and-cold in important games. Hellebuyck hasn’t been lights out all year, but he’s more stable than Smith and healthier.

Prediction: Winnipeg wins series 4-2

Regular Season Playoff Picks: 2-2

2021 NHL Central Division Playoff Predictions

The central has been hockey’s powerhouse division since the season began. Carolina and Tampa Bay have been Stanley Cup contenders with their roster depth and coaching. The Florida Panthers upgraded defensively, and announced they’re a solid Stanley Cup contender at the trade deadline acquiring Sam Bennett from Calgary. One of these three teams who comes out on top in the central has a great chance of not just going to the finals, but winning the championship.

This is a unique season where the top four teams of each division play each other until one team remains. The remaining four teams play each other in the conference finals. Without further delay, here’s the playoff predictions for the 2021 central division.

#1 Carolina Hurricanes v. #4 Nashville Predators

No matter what happens, congratulations to Nashville for making it to the playoffs. John Hynes’ club was considered dead in the water, about to sell at the trade deadline. Depth scoring propelled the Predators past the Chicago Blackhawks and Dallas Stars. This team fights hard and plays great defense.

The Hurricanes’ roster has gotten healthy at the right time, with starting goaltender Petr Mrazek headlining the returns.

They’re rewarded with a first round series against a top three team in the NHL record-wise. The Hurricanes should be thrilled to not face the Boston Bruins in this year’s re-alignment. Nashville had to win one of their games against a deeper and more talented Carolina team to clinch a playoff berth. Now the Hurricanes know every move the Predators make first round.

Carolina has to take Nashville out fast. The Battle of Florida won’t go four games. The Hurricanes have home ice advantage throughout the central. If they can sweep the Predators, they’ve gained a bigger advantage resting players a few more days while watching their next opponent.

Prediction: Carolina wins series 4-0

#2 Florida Panthers v. #3 Tampa Bay Lightning

Fists will fly in the Sunshine State for at least five games. Despite the layered depth for both teams, their physical play will stand out more.

The first ever Battle of Florida playoffs matchup. This is the most exciting series for playoff hockey. Both teams score when they want and solidified defensive play. All but two games played against each other the winner put up at least five goals. Now we’ll see who the better team is when it matters most.

The Lightning’s two best players in Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov finally return from long-term injured reserve to lead their team. Tampa goes from needing every available player, to long-term depth past their third line. Their success in previous playoff series (minus last year’s championship) puts them in a great position to make another deep run. Goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy will show us why he’s a Vezina finalist against an offensively deep rival.

Joel Quenneville’s second year in Florida is reminiscent of his second year in Chicago. The Panthers will have the extra home game and know how to beat the Lightning with or without Stamkos playing. Sergei Bobrovsky has played much better than last year, but the Florida defense has been the highlight. Mackenzie Weegar, Gustav Forsling, Anton Stralman and Keith Yandle have taken the next steps to being an elite defense without Aaron Ekblad.

Series matchup: Aleksander Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau, Carter Verhaeghe and Frank Vatrano v. Victor Hedman, Ryan McDonagh, Erik Cernak and Mikhail Sergachev

Jonathan Huberdeau’s offensive prowess will be a heavy task for Mikhail Sergachev (98) and Victor Hedman (77)

The Panthers’ offensive firepower runs on their captain Barkov and his counterpart Huberdeau, but both Vatrano and Verhaeghe have elevated their games to levels analysts and opposing coaches didn’t expect. These are Florida’s top scorers. While there’s great veteran presence and solid depth on the third and fourth line, this core sets the tempo in the first two periods of play.

Tampa’s defense is lead by the best defenseman in hockey, Victor Hedman. McDonagh and Cernak have improved and crafted better play since they won a championship. Sergachev and even the addition of David Savard at the trade deadline are the right counter to a deep and layered Panther offense…this year at least.

Prediction: Tampa Bay wins series 4-3

Regular Season Playoff Picks: 3-1

2021 NHL Eastern Division Playoff Predictions

Sports fans and analysts knew before the season started the Eastern division seemed the most difficult deciding who would make the playoffs. Questions about all three New York and both Pennsylvania teams arose. Analysts questioned if Washington would look anything close to their championship run three years ago especially on defense.

Those questions are answered. In fact, the east became the first division to have all four teams clinch specific seeds before May 11th. Pittsburgh has home ice advantage and a chance to take out a team they’ve had success against, while Washington and Boston have gone opposite directions in scoring depth since the trade deadline.

This is a unique season where the top four teams of each division play each other until one team remains. The remaining four teams play each other in the conference finals. Without further delay, here’s the playoff predictions for the 2021 eastern division.

#1 Pittsburgh Penguins v. #4 New York Islanders

Penguins coach Mike Sullivan was under fire for the team underperforming in the first two months of the season. He’s silenced critics, guiding the team to a number one seed in the division.

Pittsburgh is the most consistent team in this division all year, so it makes sense they’re the number one seed as playoffs begin. Coach Mike Sullivan gave both goaltenders Tristan Jarry and Casey DeSmith time off, and Evgeni Malkin should return in the first game against New York, a team they beat six times.

New York has dipped since the trade deadline. The additions of Kyle Palmieri and Travis Zajac haven’t played to the offense’s strengths as hoped, and the Islanders don’t have time to figure it out. The defense has been stellar, but the Penguins have given coach Barry Trotz headaches during the regular season. Unless the offense starts scoring consistently, they’ll be an easy out.

Prediction: Pittsburgh wins series 4-0

#2 Washington Capitals v. #3 Boston Bruins

Boston’s trade for Taylor Hall at the trade deadline is their biggest win of the season. They went from barely holding on to the fourth seed to climbing up to third.

Before the trade deadline, the Capitals’ scoring depth was the teams strength. Washington almost cemented first place in the East. Boston struggled to find a depth scorer outside of Nick Ritchie. Since the trade deadline, the Bruins have been white hot while Washington is trying to find scoring past their second line.

It couldn’t be more polar. Boston’s acquisitions of Taylor Hall and Curtis Lazar solidified the second and third lines, relying more on depth than just the flawless first. Lost in the offensive improvement is the rise of goaltender Jeremy Swayman, who stepped up when both Jaroslav Halak and Tuukka Rask were out with lower body injuries.

The Capitals will always find ways to score with Alex Ovechkin’s first line, but Ovechkin himself has to come back healthy for the Capitals to counter one of the best defensive lines in hockey. The Tom Wilson debacle, injuries, and the shaky play of Vitek Vanecek has contributed in why the Capitals slipped to second place. Carlson and Backstrom’s return matters just as much because they create better chemistry and scoring chances.

Despite the issues on offense, the series comes down to goaltending. It would be better if 40 year old veteran Craig Anderson started in net. Ilya Samsonov isn’t ready to start the series and Vanecek isn’t a solid number one option. The goaltending issues will prove the difference in this series.

Capitals goalie Vitek Vanecek’s been shaky against playoff contending teams this season. Washington should consider playing more than just Vanecek in more than four games.

Prediction: Boston wins series 4-2

Regular Season Playoff Picks: 3-1